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Column: What the heck is happening with fans in the NBA Playoffs?

And why is it seemingly so challenging to be respectful to players?

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Washington Wizards Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

We get it. It’s been a whole year since we’ve been able to go to in-person sporting events. And yet somehow, all the excitement around an almost normal playoff push has been dampened. That’s because, in just the opening days of the NBA Playoffs, a total of five venues have already banned fans for a variety of incidents — most of which involved insulting and assaulting players:

  • In Philadelphia, a fan poured popcorn on Washington Wizards star Russell Westbrook as an injured Westbrook limped to the locker room. The “fan,” who turned out to be a 76ers season ticket holder, is banned indefinitely. As an aside, a judge recently threw out a $100 million defamation case against Westbrook brought on by another fan who heckled Westbrook several years ago and was subsequently banned.
  • In Utah, security removed three hecklers who targeted Memphis Grizzlies’ guard Ja Morant’s family. Those three fans have similarly been banned indefinitely.
  • In game two against the Atlanta Hawks at Madison Square Garden, a Knicks fan spit on guard Trae Young. The Knicks released a statement and subsequently banned that fan as well.
  • The Boston Celtics didn’t hold any punches. TD Garden already issued a lifetime ban to a fan who threw a water bottle at Brooklyn’s Kyrie Irving. The fan was also arrested and charged with assault and battery.
  • Most recently, in game four of the Wizards and 76ers series, a fan attempted to run on the court in Washington, and was quickly tackled by security. He will also be banned, according to a Capital One Arena statement.

The first three incidents listed all occurred last Wednesday alone, and even the deterrent of fans being promptly banned didn’t stop the incidents from this past weekend.

For starters, kudos to the NBA for holding fans accountable. The aforementioned individuals — especially those rightly charged with assault — are not merely being made examples of. Their actions could have had severe consequences for the players they were targeting, and the NBA is holding fans to the code of conduct it has laid out.

The National Basketball Players Association didn’t mince words in its statement either, stating, “True fans of this game honor and respect the dignity of our players. No true fan would seek to harm them or violate their personal space. Those who do have no place in our arenas.”

While these types of incidents are, unfortunately, nothing new, we have to wonder why all these rather violent events seem to be happening in such quick succession.

Is it that we’ve gotten so wrapped up in video games and TV that we’ve forgotten how to interact in-person? For those among us who’ve been dipping our toes into going back into the office, we all have felt the pain of trying to remember what it was like to engage IRL. But even throwing popcorn or a water bottle at your TV is an inappropriate response.

While it’s not specific to now, there’s also something about the nature of basketball as a sport that might encourage this type of behavior— particularly because of how the arenas are set up; fans are closer to players than in other sports. In many ways, this arrangement lends itself to an intense and exciting environment for fans to watch games in and which can create an immense home court advantage. Remember that men’s basketball season in the Big Ten where the home team won like just about every game?

But there’s the unfortunate and ugly downside of that arrangement we’ve seen in the last week or so. Imagine trying to dump popcorn on a player at an NFL game. It seems nearly impossible, but it seems to be far too easy for the NBA.

Moreover, let’s take a look at the incidents themselves. While it would be really nice to be able to say this rise in incidents is the result of fans needing to “let off some steam” (no, that is still not a valid excuse), when we look at the limited data, there is something more sinister and insidious at play that we’ve come to realize is harbored in many if not most of our institutions: Systemic racism. What we’ve seen is fans assaulting Black players.

The idea that these people felt safe enough to assault — in public, with thousands of witnesses — Black men, and had the audacity to expect there wouldn’t be consequences is indicative of just how deeply rooted these challenges are in our society. If you asked any of the assaulters, they’d probably indicate that racism played no role. That they were just hazing an opponent. Punishing a player who didn’t play well enough. Again, the expectations of this largely couch potato demographic is that these elite athletes exist for their enjoyment.

One Jazz fan apparently told the father of Ja Morant, “I’ll put a nickel in your back and watch you dance, boy.” We should all take a second to recognize how disturbing of a sentiment that is.

“It has been that way in history in terms of entertainment, performers and sports for a long period of time and just underlying racism and just treating people like they’re in a human zoo,” Irving said after the incident. “Throwing stuff at people, saying things. There is a certain point where it gets to be too much.”

At the most surface level, these incidents should remind us to keep it classy. Players, even on opposing teams, have bonds that extend to protecting one another from the likes of sh*tty fans. LeBron called out the person who dumped popcorn on Westbrook. Organizations recognize the need to protect both their own and opposing players from these fans. And fans who maintain healthy decorum will quickly turn their backs on those who violate the code — we can see people pointing to the fan who dumped popcorn on Westbrook and Jazz fans were quick to show security who was heckling Morant.

These incidents have been a truly appalling distraction. I’ve been watching the Playoffs on and off throughout the opening rounds and my biggest takeaway is not related to the game itself, but about how uncouth these fans are choosing to be.

Let’s be clear: Russell Westbrook and Ja Morant and Kyrie Irving and the rest of the NBA’s players do not exist for your entertainment. We need to treat players like the humans that they are.